As the denouement of the EU negotiations loom, the papers have offered a running commentary of Sir Keir Starmer’s struggle to unite the Labour Party behind his Brexit policy.
The Labour leader is reportedly “leaning heavily towards whipping in favour of a deal if ministers strike one”, according to the Times, “but his top team is divided on the merits of such a move”.
A substantial section of the Shadow Cabinet want the Opposition to abstain and let the Government carry the can for the consequences of whatever manner of Brexit the Prime Minister eventually delivers. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to simultaneously claim that Britain’s relationship with Europe (or indeed approach to lockdown) is an issue of paramount importance, as so many in Labour have, and then sit out of the vote on that relationship.
Voting against the deal, at this stage in the negotiations, risks not only looking inveterately hostile to Brexit to many of the ‘Red Wall’ voters Labour needs to win back from the Conservatives, but is also a tacit endorsement of ‘No Deal’, as at this stage no alternative to whatever Boris Johnson brings back is on the table.
So Starmer is probably right, on balance, to row in behind the deal in the Commons. Voters seldom blame the Opposition for Government policy anyway. But what if, contra to all the weary cynicism of those watching the London-Brussels pantomime, the talks really do fall through and No Deal Brexit it is?
The Leader of the Opposition can scarcely endorse it, especially given his personal role as the champion of the Europhile rearguard during the previous parliament. In a recent piece for Prospect, Peter Mandelson claims Starmer is one of the principle suspects in the mystery of what killed a soft Brexit:
“Ultimately Keir Starmer, then Labour’s Brexit spokesman, used the paralysis to wear Corbyn down until he accepted a People’s Vote as the Labour platform – hoping that the cul-de-sac would turn into an exit route from Brexit. It was a high-stakes, winner-takes-all gamble – and they lost, with a softer Brexit being the collateral damage.”
But attacking it will carry its own risks. The Government will (or at least, given its messaging record, ought) to come straight out of the traps with an exculpatory version of events, pinning the blame for the collapse of the negotiations on unreasonable EU demands to prevent it protecting the fishing industry and setting up a state aid policy to help regenerate regional industries.
If it wants to win back the territory lost to the Tories at the last election, Labour probably can’t look like it’s endorsing Brussels’ policy. But if it doesn’t, that invites the obvious question: what would you have done in Johnson’s place? Accepted the terms he rejected? Or walk away, as he did?